|Fig. 1: Robin the Cobbler, 1655|
Although aprons are more normally associated with women in the early modern period many tradesmen wore aprons, and references appear in literature, wills, probate inventories and illustrations of the period. In fact the term apron-men is often used to indicate tradesmen. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Menenius Agrippa says “You and your apron-men; you that stood so up much on the voice of occupation”
Aprons for men in the dirtier, heavier trades, came in leather. In Shakepeare’s Henry VI part II John Holland, an armourer comments that “the nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons,” and Peter, his apprentice says, “Here, Robin, an if I die, I give thee my apron: and, Will, thou shalt have my hammer.”
This association continues across later centuries as well. The young Benjamin Franklin in one of his first essays says that ‘‘the Generality of People’’ were unwilling to judge what they read until they knew ‘‘who or what the Author of it is, whether he be poor or rich, old or young, a Schollar or a Leather-Apron Man.” Franklin and his father were printers, and when Franklin formed a club in 1727 it was originally called the Leather Apron Club, the political connotations of this have been examined by several writers. (1, 2)
Of nine men for whom we have aprons in their wills or probate inventories, only two are specified as leather. In 1632 in Suffolk, George Keritch a single man, bequeaths his brother in law “my leather apron and my hedging gloves” (3) While in 1621 the mason John Cheetam of Stockport lists both an apron/barmskin and a barmskin.(4) Barmskin is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a dialect term for a leather apron.
Leather aprons are also frequently associated with shoemakers and cobblers. An illustration of Robin the Cobbler (Figure 1) in the 1655 pamphlet The Witch of the Woodlands shows him wearing a leather apron. These aprons were often made from a whole skin and one corner might be pinned or buttoned to the doublet to form a bib.
Fabric aprons were made from various materials. Canvas was one option, and in 1609 Richard Mascoll, a butcher, owned three canvas aprons (5) Spufford mentions a 1658 yeoman who owned both a calico and a holland apron (6), and another yeoman in 1682 has four blue aprons of unspecified fabric.(7)
Which tradesmen wore aprons?
|Fig. 2: Barber, 1688|
So far we have mentioned armourers, carpenters, printers, hedgers, masons, shoemakers, cobblers, butchers and yeomen. Other tradesmen who leave aprons in their probate inventories, but do not indicate what they are made from include barbers and vintners. A page of Randle Holmes illustrations of workmen for his Academy of Armory can be seen here, showing a labourer, shoemaker, smith and baker wearing aprons. Below are a few, it is not a comprehensive list, of the trades for whom we have references for or illustrations of men in aprons.
In 1638 Anthony Hatt, a barber left “3 aprons and other shopp instruments...” in his probate inventory (8). In 1632 William Turner’s probate inventory listed among other things, “two ould shearen clothes two ould towelyes and one ould apren”(9). Randle Holme in his Academie of Armory 1688 has a crude woodcut of a barber (Figure 2) and says, “A barber is always known by his cheque parti-coloured apron; it needs not mentioning; neither can he be termed barber (a poller or shaver as anciently they were called) till his apron be about him.”
|Fig. 3: Brewer, 1625|
Brewers, tapsters and vintners
Those who worked in brewing and in the making and sales of beers, wine and spirits often wore aprons. In 1616 Thomas Ablestone, a vintner left “1 shirt, 1 aporne, 5s” in his probate account (10). One of the Roxburghe Ballads, dating to around 1625, shows a master brewer (Figure 3) with an apron hanging from his waist.
Building Trades (Masons, carpenters, joiners, etc.)
We have mentioned the leather aprons of the mason, and in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when a commoner says that he is a carpenter, Marullus asks him, “Where is thy leather apron and thy rule?” Randle Holme depicts a joiner and a box maker, both wearing aprons.
|Fig. 4: Confectioner, 1647|
Food Trades (Butchers, bakers, cooks, etc.)
We have already mentioned the butcher who owned three canvas aprons. The 1641 pamphlet The Lamentable Complaints of Hop the brewer and Kilcalfe the butcher, show both men in aprons. The 1647 broadsheet These Tradesmen are Preachers shows a confectioner in an apron (Figure 4)
Smiths of various types are among the leather apron trades, as can be seen in another of the These Tradesmen are Preachers illustrations. However the 1635 In Praise of Black Smiths broadsheet appears to show them in fabric aprons, note the addition of tassels at the bottom corners of the aprons. (Figure 5)
|Fig 5: Blacksmiths, 1635|
At least nine of the men in Laroon’s 1688 Criers and Hawkers of London series have aprons, these are: the vinegar seller, the oyster seller, singing glasses, puff pastries, knife grinder, tinker, onion seller, pear seller and river water. The various Cries of London series had been around for many years and often plagiarised one another, but there are differences. The late 16th century mat seller doesn’t have an apron, the early and mid 17th century ones do, and the Laroon version doesn’t. (11) The later street sellers seem to have longer aprons that earlier, as can be seen in Laroon’s pear seller, note that like this apron, many are tied at the front. (Figure 6)
|Fig. 6: Pear seller, 1688|
1. Newman, S.P. (2009) Benjamin Franklin and the leather-apron men: the politics of class in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. Journal of American Studies, v.43(2), pp. 161-175.
2. Kulikoff, Allan, (2014) Silence Dogood and the Leather-Apron Men. Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, v.81 (3), pp. 364-374.
3. Evans, Nesta, ed. (1987) Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury 1630-1635. Suffolk Records Society, v. 29, p.189
4. Phillips, C. B. and Smith, J. H., eds. (1993) Stockport probate records, vol 2, 1620-1650. Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, v. 131, pp.154-6
5. George, E. and S. -eds. (2002) Bristol probate inventories, Part 1: 1542-1650. Bristol Records Society publication v.54, p.8
6. Spufford, Margaret (1984) The Great Reclothing of Rural England. (London: Hambledon), p. 128
7. Williams, L. and Thompson, S. eds. (2007) Marlborough probate inventories 1591-1775. Wiltshire Record Society, v. 59, p.165.
8. Williams, L. and Thompson, S. eds. (2007) Marlborough probate inventories 1591-1775. Wiltshire Record Society, v. 59, p.85.
9. Wilson, J. H. ed. (1983) Wymondham Inventories: 1591-1641 Creative history from East Anglian sources, no. 1, p.35
10. Brinkworth E.R.C. and Gibson, J.S.W. eds. (1985) Banbury wills and inventories. Pt.1, 1591-1620. Banbury Historical Society, v. 13, pp.213-14.11. Laroon, Marcellus (1990) The Criers and Hawkers of London; edited with an introduction by Sean Shesgreen. (Aldershot: Scholar Press)